At his barn, winners can eat dirt, too

October 02, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

HYDES -- At 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, Larry Smith could easily get back in uniform and play offense as a starting tight end for Cornell's "Big Red."

But after graduating from the upstate New York school, Smith traded in his football jersey for paddock shoes and started training racehorses.

What makes Smith different from many of his peers is some of the unusual training methods he has developed, many derived from his own athletic experiences.

At Cornell, Smith majored in animal science and played on a college team that shared the Ivy League title in 1986 with the University of Pennsylvania, posting a 6-1 league record.

Five years later, the 26-year-old is training athletes of the thoroughbred variety and is starting to saddle winners with regularity.

Running mostly rejects from other stables, Smith's string of 12 horses has won 28 races so far this year, with victories ranging from Laurel and Pimlico to such diverse points as Saratoga, Penn National and Charles Town.

In between stops, 10 days ago, Smith shipped three runners to Philadelphia Park and won on the same card with all three -- Final Step, $9.60; Nine Grand, $34; and Custom Threads, $8.60.

Nine Grand is a source of particular pride. She made nine starts for her former trainer without earning a penny. Given up as hopeless, she has won seven races for Smith and earned $28,383.

Some of Smith's training practices are unorthodox. For instance, he likes his horses to eat dirt.

"Unbelievable the number of minerals in dirt," Smith said. "I turn my horses out in paddocks and love nothing better than for them to come in with muddy lips. Dirt provides trace elements that are missing in a lot of high-powered vitamin supplements other trainers feed."

Smith doesn't stable at the racetrack, but at Dorsey Fleming's Green Valley Farm in Hydes, where he has use of the half-mile training track at any time of day. That means when it's hot in summer, he can train when it's cool in the evenings. When the track surface is hard and frozen on wintry mornings, he can wait until the strip thaws out in the afternoon. It also means he is free to ship anywhere to try to win a race, and he does, sometimes putting as much as 1,000 miles a week on his horse van driving to as many as seven different East Coast tracks.

It also gives him a freer rein, in his words, "to let horses be horses" and to train them in a natural environment.

Smith runs kind of a Montessori School for horseflesh, and it's quite startling to visit his stable after being used to seeing rows and rows of confined animals at the racetrack where they only get out of their stalls for about an hour a day for exercise.

Take for example, the filly, Big Big Affair. She was due to run in the feature race at Pimlico last Friday. On Thursday on a particularly balmy afternoon in a spacious field in the Long Green Valley, Big Big Affair is running loose with four other fillies. She is covered in dirt from a muddy roll and is pigging out on the fresh green grass.

Smith calls this group "the Racing Herd."

Even though Big Big Affair failed to win that Friday race, the filly had already paid for herself, being claimed by Smith for the Coach Hill Stable in mid-August and winning more than $10,000 in a month's time.

Smith gives his horses the chance to stretch their muscles and roam free for up to nine hours a day as part of a daily regimen that would cause most trainers to wince.

Smith has developed innovative strategy after working with horses for more than 10 years, first as a part-time groom during high school days at Baltimore's Friends School and during college vacations from Cornell.

He credits versatile horsemen Bruce Fenwick and Tom Voss, who have had success training flat runners as well as steeplechasers, with giving him a foundation in the game. He is not adverse to running a horse hard, and often.

He says that stress tests have proven that in athletic events under three miles, horses run mostly on stored energy and not from aerobic exertion. That stored energy is restored after a couple of days of rest. Providing the horse comes back in good shape from a race, Smith has had success running horses back in four or five days.

He also never "blows out" a horse (giving them a fast workout at three-eighths of a mile) a day or two before a race, which is almost a ritual at the racetrack. "It just wastes stored energy," he said.

When training a horse, Smith tries never to do the same thing two days in a row. "The idea," he said, "is stress and recovery, stress and recovery."

He also keeps an open mind. "I'm learning all the time," he said. "In this game, you've got to be a good mechanic, trying to find out what ails a horse and fix it. Also my training theories aren't carved in stone. Maybe next year I'll change what I'm doing. The idea is to adapt, change and survive.

"The bottom line is to win and make money," he added. "It's like my old Cornell coach, Maxie Baughn, used to say. It's fun to fool around in practice, but there's nothing like winning that game against Harvard. And sometimes, you've got to do what you've got to do to win, even if that means shipping to Penn National to run in the 10th race on a cold winter night."

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